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<strong>The Anatomist: the Autobiography of Anthony Sampson</strong>

<em>Politico's, 416pp, £19.9

Soon after Anthony Sampson had come down from Oxford in 1951, one of his friends from there, the young South African millionaire Jim Bailey, offered him the editorship of Drum, his newly launched sex and sport magazine for the Johannesburg townships. For a shy youth with no previous journalistic experience, it was not quite as bizarre an appointment as that of Evelyn Waugh's William Boot to Abyssinia, but getting on that way. My favourite line in this posthumously published autobiography comes from those early years. "One morning," he writes, "I was woken up [in a Soweto shebeen] by a sexy black woman, saying 'Sampson, can you buy me some beers'." As it happens this is the book's only mention of the author's sex life, apart from his regretful denial that he was ever the lover of Nadine Gordimer, the South African Nobel Prize for Literature winner, in spite of her early novel, in which Sampson is the hero, very much suggesting otherwise.

From this same transformational period of Sampson's journalistic life also comes the book's only joke. On his way to Soweto one day, a black colleague - perhaps Nelson Mandela, since Drum's all-black staff included most of the future ANC leaders - pointed out a sign saying "Natives cross here". Someone had changed it, Sampson tells us, to "Natives very cross here", a blackly humorous way to describe the revolutionary rage coursing through their veins.

Not only did Sampson lose his virginity and find his journalist vocation as a result of these experiences but, just as important, he forged an epic friendship with Mandela, whose bestselling official biography he eventually wrote decades later. It is an astonishing story. Sampson did not simply report on the townships; he lived the life, taking great risks to do so, if only because sex between black and white in those days was still a serious criminal offence. All of this deservedly helped to guarantee him, on his return to London four years later, a hero's welcome from David Astor, the anti-colonialist editor of the Observer, for which, with great distinction, Sampson wrote for most of the rest of his life.

What this autobiography shows, however, is that Sampson's genuinely intimate identification with the oppressed blacks - to a degree unequalled by any other white reporter at the time - did not come out of the blue. He also describes how in his earlier wartime role as a naval officer he had landed up in Hamburg, where he immediately identified with the oppressed Germans, because their plight - compared to his own comfortable billet in the only luxury hotel still standing - shocked him deeply. As it happened, I was also in the same officers' mess about this time - our paths did not actually cross until later - and far from feeling sorry for the Germans, I can very distinctly remember thinking that they were only getting the medicine they deserved; which almost certainly explains why he, rather than I, went on to become the foremost investigative journalist of our generation.

The launching pad that really sent Sampson's fortunes soaring was the Anatomy of Britain series of books, in which, with unnecessary statistical thoroughness, Sampson demonstrated that Britain was run very largely by the public school elite in general and Old Etonians in particular - really not so much a discovery as an elegantly written statement of the obvious. Fortunately for Sampson, the book coincided with a period of extreme economic stagnation and although this was actually due to the almost criminally selfish behaviour of the trade unions, the "old boy" upper class network provided Sampson with a much more colourful scapegoat. Aristocracy bad, meritocracy better: that was the theme of this famous series - gossip column stuff dressed up as sociology - and it was just what the public wanted. Everyone who was anyone wanted to be included, rather as today they want to be in Hello!. It made Sampson's name and fortune; ensured that he was asked to every smart dinner party, initially only by the powerful and ambitious in Britain but eventually by top dogs the world over.

For, during the next 30 years or so, Sampson gave the same anatomical treatment, with the same rewarding results, to the European Union, Nixon's America, the oil magnates, the conglomerate ITT, and last but not least, the arms dealers, all of whom came back for more. Take the arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi's reaction, for example. "It was impossible," writes Sampson, "to shame or embarrass him: after I had denounced his arms deals in The Arms Bazaar he still seemed more than glad to see me, to talk about the world and to show off his wealth. When he gave me a long lunch in London and I asked for a glass of wine he ordered a bottle of Mouton Rothschild's 64. When I wanted to interview him at the Paris Air Show he flew me there in his private DC9 airliner with a double bedroom, bathroom and luxurious sitting room."

This autobiography is full of such stories, all of which show Sampson getting red carpet treatment, privileged access, and consorting with Arabian princes, American senators and tycoons, French énarques and, inevitably, Henry Kissinger - who said on introduction: "Not the Anthony Sampson." All this is wryly and deprecatingly described, but what surprises and rather disappoints is that Sampson never seems to realise that his form of "anatomising", so suave, subtle and sophisticated, gave more pleasure than pain; did more to massage egos than chasten souls.

No, the finest parts of this beautifully written and readable book are those where the author anatomises himself, revealing the thoughts, hopes, fears that lay behind his enigmatic face. These are truly moving - particularly the love expressed for his wife and family - and show this remarkable and high-minded man as he really was. The last time Tony and I met, not long before his death, was at the Beefsteak Club, an archetypal Establishment social haunt, where over lunch I urged him to do a final anatomising job on Britain's hateful new meritocracy, which he did so much to put in place. He winced and almost apologetically said, very quietly, as was his way: "No Perry, I'll leave that to you."

This article first appeared in the 10 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Change has come